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Surviving the Dog Days of Summer

It is the season of "dog days," days so hot and humid that you can cut the atmosphere with a butter knife. Or, as our grandparents said, "days fit for a dog's activity - lying in the coolest spot available." The challenge for both people and plants is to keep cool.

One solution is to create a xeriscape. In previous years, this term was so severely abused that "xeri" was replaced with "zero," and landscapes became the host for a pile of rocks. Well, guess what? Rocks don't cool the atmosphere! Living, green plants mediate the ongoing effect of climatic extremes. Drought-tolerant flowers, shrubs and trees can create a showplace garden without wasting water or resulting in jaw-dropping water bills.

Interested in installing a xeriscape, or "dog days" garden? Start by selecting drought-tolerant plants that work well for your area. Install trees and larger shrubs so they provide filtered light and avoid competing for vital nutrients. While eye-pleasing landscapes have a backdrop of taller and/or larger shrubs or perennials, these plants more importantly serve as anchors, providing layers of cooling habitat for us and the critters that live with us. Pick colors that blend and carry the anchor plant's color from top to bottom of the design. Shades in the blue-green color family will give your garden the appearance of being cool. For contrast and texture, select plants or d?cor items that introduce difference.

During installation:

Identify sunny and shady areas, slopes and views. Then, group plants with similar water needs into zones to make watering easier.Test the soil for nutrient content and makeup. Good soil absorbs and retains water much better than poor soil.Irrigate efficiently. Even the lowest water-using xeriscape needs supplemental water during extended hot, dry periods.Limit turf areas. Use wildflowers and native grasses as lawn substitutes, especially in large open spaces and low-use areas.Use mulch. Mulch covers help reduce erosion, retain moisture and minimize the fluctuation in soil temperature.Select eco-chic plants. Be aware using an eco-efficient plant does not necessarily mean a drab, gray plant with lots of thorns or a cactus.Maintain it. Properly maintained spaces are hardier and better able to withstand drought, freezing and pests.

Properly installed, a xeriscape is not simply a beautiful, water-wise space but a place that, as our grandparents said, provides a retreat for "a dog's activity - lying in the coolest spot available."

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